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God Hypothesis: The Problem of Background Knowledge

Photo credit: Chris Price, via Flickr (cropped).

Editor’s note: This is Part 2 in a series. Read Part 1 here.

Continuing my evaluation of philosopher James Croft’s challenge to the God hypothesis as presented in his debate with Stephen Meyer, I’ll pick up where I left off in Croft’s Substack summary, just after he distills Meyer’s argument in a few key points. Croft had three major problems with the argument. We’ll start with his first one.

Philosophers Clash

Croft proposes that Meyer’s abductive inference “is extremely unusual, in that it suggests that the cause of an observed effect is a designer about which we have no background information.” This is a popular challenge, one that’s been developed more formally in the philosophical literature around design. Does it have merit?

The first natural point here is that we all start out in life with the same amount of background information about all entities and minds besides our own — which is to say, none. A newborn infant has no background information about the strange creature licking his face, or the shadowy figure lifting him out of the crib. Nevertheless, through gradual data-gathering, he forms his understanding of cause and effect. I doubt Croft would claim that infants are born with innate concepts of these things. The data-gathering process must begin somewhere. Croft objects that “the phenomena to be explained (the explanandum) is supposed to be part of our evidence that God even exists.” But by the same token, the wet-washcloth sensation of puppy tongue on baby cheeks is part of the baby’s evidence that Puppy exists.

Now, it is true that for any given body of evidence, we can patch together an explanation that will deductively entail the whole. Perhaps the universe was set up from the beginning so as to make puppies, mommies, trees, etc. inevitable. The problem is that our “making-all-the-evidence-inevitable” factor has no other epistemic virtues to commend it. We may still be right. But it’s not the way to bet. The hypothesis of intelligent agency, on the other hand, may have a variety of virtues and explain a variety of phenomena.

What Did You Expect?

In the debate, Meyer uses a car break-in as an intuition pump. We reason backwards from the scene of the crime to the inference of human agency. But Croft believes this is importantly disanalogous to the God hypothesis, because we know a lot about human beings already — that they exist, that they have the power to break into cars, and that they can have a motive to do so. With all of that in the background, we can reason backwards. Not so with God.

By coincidence, someone I know did have his car broken into this summer. It was fairly anti-climactic (he had carelessly left his door unlocked), but the car’s glove box and utility space had clearly been rifled through. There was nothing of value to be pilfered, but small missing items included a clump of cheap face masks, some of which had been amusingly left in a trail like Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs behind our runaway thief. This was several months before the Delta wave, but our perp apparently thought the masks might still be worth something. Two small, unremarkable pocket knives were also missing. 

Now, a priori, before the fact, there was no reason to predict that a thief would be especially interested in either a wad of face masks or a couple of cheap pocket knives. And yet, a posteriori, after the fact, burglary was the natural inference. I’m reminded of a story Fran Lebowitz tells about finding the windshield of her high school car broken, her cigarettes and an apple plucked from the dashboard. Miffed, she called over the nearest representative of the NYPD and pointed out the damage. “What did you have on the dashboard?” the officer asked. “I had an apple and a pack of cigarettes.” “Well,” he said, throwing up his hands, “what did you expect?”

This is very funny, but also very apt. What did Fran expect? What did my friend expect?

Generic Gods, Generic Men

To take another example, from a paper by philosopher Lydia McGrew in response to philosopher Thomas Crisp, McGrew recalls receiving an e-mail from an admiring reader in Croatia. Prior to getting this e-mail, she was aware of Croatians in general, but she was unaware of this Croatian in particular. Indeed, she was unaware that anyone from Croatia would be especially moved to send her a fan letter. But, upon reading said letter, she acquired new knowledge.

It is true that we don’t know a priori whether there exists an entity outside the universe with means and motive to communicate his presence to human beings. But what if there were such an entity? In that case, how could we tell? These are the questions the theist is actually interested in, because the God hypothesis is not contentless. It’s the very hypothesis he wants to test-drive. But Croft has blocked the road right out of the gate.

And indeed, if we applied this reasoning consistently, it would block the road for our discovery of any new, non-human intelligent agent, never mind God. If aliens existed, why would they want to send the team in Contact an extended message consisting of the digits of pi? Nobody knows. There’s certainly no “independent evidence” to that effect. But there it is. 

Returning to our “magic ratio” from part one, the likelihood ratio P(E|H)/P(E|~H) (where we’ll say E = evidence and H = hypothesis), McGrew makes a further technical point: To have such a ratio that favors the God hypothesis, one doesn’t necessarily need to have independent knowledge of motive, only capability. “God,” by definition, is certainly capable of design, whatever his motives. This is the key to answering the popular academic claim that our magic ratio loses its magic when H = God hypothesis, because our numerator P(E|H) is inaccessible, a number we can’t get our hands on. We can still say something about a ratio even if we lack full access to its component parts. One doesn’t need a highly specific high number for the numerator to know that it’s much higher than the denominator.

The “Woven Mat”

Croft concludes this section by saying the theist is in the “unenviable position” of “trying to use the explanans [proposed cause of phenomenon] to explain the explanandum [phenomenon to be explained].” But this just smuggles in the silent assumption that the only legitimate sort of causal hypothesis is a hypothesis for which we already have “independent evidence.” If rather, to quote Charles Sanders Peirce, everything is “a woven, felted mat of abductions,” if indeed all of our empirical knowledge is constructed by inference to the best explanation, then there is a first time for every new thing. On the other hand, if Croft is correct that IBE always requires independent evidence before we can use something as an explanans to remove our surprise at an explanandum, then the question for Croft is how we learn anything for the first time. 

This is Croft’s first problem: If he bites the bullet and says we don’t use inference to the best explanation for anything, then his argument is a universal acid. His second problem is the problem McGrew raises: Neither Meyer nor any ID proponent is bound to deliver a number for the probability of our evidence given God. That number need not be high. It need only be higher than the denominator. 

This concludes my assessment of Croft’s first objection. Next time, we’ll look at his claim that Meyer is misapplying writers like Charles Lyell and Michael Scriven.